Because we’re all hard-wired for story, focus on people and their passions first, not on your own programs.
It’s been more than 4 years since I first wrote about Kinote, a coffee farmer in Meru, Kenya who was working hard to build a larger house for his family.
For a DC-based client, I was in rural Kenya to tell Kinote’s story. The larger context was the agricultural extension agent (and his NGO) who was helping the farmers improve yields and sell direct-to-market.
Despite the many differences between us, Kinote’s quest to grow his business and provide for his family was something I identified with.
His story came rushing back to me as I added new clips to my company’s updated reel, “Videos for Good.” [Dorst MediaWorks Reel 2018].”
That’s because Kinote’s two young daughters are the first two people you see in the video, wiping sleep out of their eyes crawling out of bed.
Kinote’s not alone. Every person in the reel brings back a torrent of memories for me, usually their hopes and dreams.
How do you tell these stories? I mean, corporate governance and capacity building are super abstract.
It’s the people and their passions.
I don’t recall the details of the programmatic interventions on any of these project, but I definitely remember the hopes and dreams of the people I chose to film.
LeCow is a Brazilian teenager from a sprawling favela who’s dream is to become a musician (13 seconds.)
Sara wants to grow her clothing company and export from Ethiopia to America (34 seconds. Spolier: She succeeds, and I see her products at The Gap at a Maryland suburban mall 12 months later!)
Rabih’s chief ambition is to grow his fishing business in Lebanon (At 38 seconds.)
The beautiful thing about the documentary video process is that you give voice to people. Done properly, it’s founded on listening. You look people in the eyes. You follow and observe them. In their own voices, whether that’s Meru, Arabic, or Tagalog, they share what matters to them.
Why do I remember LeCow, Sara, and Rabih like we met yesterday?
Early on, I found myself writing scripts that featured the organizations that hired me, rather than their beneficiaries.
My big “aha moment” came during a strategy session with a big multilateral client that does a lot of work throughout Latin America.
They were understandably focused on programmatic nuts and bolts: logistics, buzzwords, metrics. They were in their own world.
I just wanted to learn about the people they serve.
Fortunately, the Director of Communications had just spent a week in the field and she had a lot of great stories.
The people we want to focus on, we all agreed, are no different than you or me. They have jobs and families. They have a past and a future.
Finally, the makings of a script outline! What if we just show their before and after, I proposed, and be honest about how your organization is helping them achieve their dreams?
Kinote is doing his best to increase coffee production so he can build a three-room house, tripling the size of his current house.
Rabih (00:38), the fisherman: “My dream is to expand my business, and buy a larger boat.”
Maxima (00:41) who I met in the slums of Manila: “I intend to keep working to provide a better future for my grandchildren.”
Kinote, Rabih, and Maxima are agents of their own change. Today, their families and communities are better. Our project helped them along the way.
That’s the story.
Organizations that do good: a conduit of authentic communications
So much of successful communications by organizations that do good is simply getting out of the way.
Are you the SCR arm of a Fortune 500 company working in your own community? Let the people you help tell their own story in their own voices (and minimize the product placement on your branded t-shirts in the video!).
Are you a large issue-oriented nonprofit, focused on water or nutrition or women’s reproductive rights? Your best stories feature the people benefiting from your activities.
Are you a foundation funding 501(c)3s? Is there a way that people can help illustrate the larger issues you care about?
The Dorst MediaWorks reel “Videos for Good” speaks to these creative choices, with animated text: “What is your greatest dream … goal … hope … desire.”
Hala in rural Lebanon: “I started alone in this (flower) business. But today I have four shops and four employees.”
Anthony, in Kenya: “Visiting them (the farmers) you’ll see bigger smiles, because there’s hope now.”
Again, animated text: “My health … civil society … conflict … economy … education is better.”
“My governance … agriculture … rule of law … job …is better.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing nonprofit marketing, a fundraising video, or nonprofit media of any kind.
Focus the lens on the people you serve. Help them tell their own stories in their own voices. In so doing, you’re connecting your audiences with hopes and dreams that resonate.
“My life is better.”
Let the people you serve tell the story
Their passions are the secret sauce in impactful storytelling.
When they achieve their hopes and dreams, with a little nudge from your organization, this illustrates results.
In the future when we all look back at our careers, we probably won’t regret taking too many risks.
On the contrary, most of us are experts at playing it safe.
Why are we so chronically cautious? For those of us with creative businesses, getting in a rut can be a fast-track to failure.
Calculated risk-taking, however, can help us gain new skills, land new clients, and grow personally and professionally.
I’m not talking about impulsive or self-sabotaging risk-taking, where you bet it all on one roll of the dice. I’m talking about the calculated kind—using intellect, effort, and resourcefulness—to take your creative business to the next level. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!
In my experience running my own small creative business (we make videos for international development organizations), here are 7 of my best calculated risks and what I learned along the way.
1. Go for it!
The year was 2000, and barely a year out of my Master’s program, I was a writer for the World Bank Group’s external website and internal online daily, “Today.” It was a good job in the field of economic development, exactly where I thought I wanted to be. I liked interviewing the diverse staff and writing about something different every day. But there was a glass ceiling: after a while, I wasn’t doing anything new. And I had a nagging feeling that what I really needed to be doing was making documentary films. Yet I had no relevant education, experience, or mentors.
Against all good judgment, I struck out on my own. Thanks to the reputation I’d built as a quality writer, I landed several contracts right away. The lesson here is to listen to yourself. When your inner voice starts telling you that you’re settling, don’t settle. If that means you need to become your own boss, then make it happen. It’ll be easier if you’re at a point in your life, like I was, without children or a mortgage. If you fail, find a way to fail forward.
2. You have to give to get
During the summer of 2001, still hungry to learn more about documentary, I attended the DoubleTake Documentary Institute held at Hampshire College. Ken Burns, Fred Wiseman, Ira Glass, and others held master classes on documentary and storytelling across disciplines. It was inspiring, and made me want to make videos more than ever! Meanwhile, as a freelancer, I was making progress, doing writing, web, and multimedia jobs—but not any video yet. Something had to give.
At the time, my friend Darin ran a nonprofit benefitting D.C. schoolchildren. What if I made him a free video? Sure, he said (surprise!). Suddenly I had to figure it out. Yikes! I had no idea how to shoot, direct, or edit. So I hired a talented shooter and editor, and I did the rest. Somehow it worked! The Heads Up video turned out great, Darin was happy, and I had the beginnings of a portfolio. During the next year, I repeated the “Free Strategy” several times. It was a pretty bad business strategy: I was robbing Peter (my freelance business) to pay Paul (the free videos). But this was the start of an education in video production I never had. Within a year, I had a solid portfolio.
The lesson: I knew a couple things about myself. First, I didn’t want to go back to school to learn video. Second, I didn’t want to work as an intern at a video production company to gain skills and knowledge. My “Free Strategy” gave me a real-world situation where I had the incentive to make quality videos for real clients on a real schedule. I gave my time and some free videos. But I got much more. I learned a lot, and fast.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it – just surround yourself with creative talent
By the end of 2003, I was getting pretty good making short videos for nonprofits, but I’d never done anything too complex. When I bid for a campaign of videos in Tokyo, I didn’t think I had a chance. I simply didn’t have the experience or portfolio.
I won the contract—undoubtedly because I underbid significantly. Initially, I was in over my head. Pre-production was exceedingly tough. Fortunately, I hired my former schoolmate Kayo to serve as Tokyo-based Unit Producer: she also co-wrote the script, translated, and was a total rock star. We engaged a local crew and used 10 actors, and ultimately spent an exhilarating week at some of Tokyo’s most beautiful locations. Less than four years after starting my company, I pulled off a complex international bilingual production. The video even won an award.
The lesson: Most importantly, I continued my education. The talented Cinematographer Stefan Weisen came to Tokyo with me and essentially co-directed. And eons before he launched his uber-successful creative agency, Gigawatt Group, Mark Devito edited. Two super creative, talented partners. This project was really a watershed point for me. Before, I was doing small stuff around D.C. After, I believed I could pull off any video production anywhere in the world. The lesson: you really can “fake it ‘til you make it” if you’re prepared to surround yourself with talented people and work your tail off.
4. To be uniquely creative, use your special networks (and a credit card)
The year was 2006. I was getting adept at writing, directing, and producing all kinds of corporate videos, but I still hadn’t made a long-form documentary. Looking around for a subject, I kept thinking of my experience living in Africa. My idea: make a film about the most extreme running race in the world—the marathon-distance trail run up a live volcano in Buea, Cameroon. The problem was I just didn’t have the budget. What to do?
I remember sitting down to lunch in January 2006 with an old friend, Paul McKellips, who’s made his share of indie features. He saw me waffling, and gave me a good motivational drubbing. His message: you have a great story. Now go to Africa and tell it! The next month, I put everything on my Visa card and flew with Dan Evans and Ryan Hill to Cameroon. I relied on Ryan’s experience with Nat Geo, Dan’s resourcefulness, and my network—which was key. My best Cameroonian friend, Jean Paul Fosso, was working with the Cameroonian Sports Ministry, so I had full access, and even ended up shooting from a helicopter during the race (crazy scary!). Another close friend, Louise Mbango, connected me to Moki Charles, a producer for Cameroonian Radio and Television. He took a week off from his day job to be our Unit Producer and hired seven additional shooters to film on race day. I directed the 10-day shoot. Then Dan and I scripted and edited for a year, working in between paying gigs. Awesome!
Ultimately, Volcanic Sprint won the non-fiction category at the Big Bear Lake Film Festival and was an official selection of the Jackson Hole Film Festival, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and Boulder Adventure Film Festival. It was distributed globally by American Public TV Worldwide. You can even watch it on Amazon and iTunes today (and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDB). I earned back my investment and then some.
To tell this unique story, I needed my friends to give me rare access. My hook-up with the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope was one-in-a-million. The lesson: look again at your own networks. They may inspire more creativity than you give them credit for!
5. Target your weaknesses
The year was 2008. My business was taking off. I had hired Dan full-time and we were scrambling to finish a lot of corporate videos. We started our second documentary, Shattered Sky, which contrasted America’s leadership preserving the ozone layer with inertia in the face of climate change. The problem was, from my standpoint, Dan was having all the fun, shooting and editing. I was the one wearing the monkey suit, writing proposals, going to meetings, producing, bent over my computer. I had the itch to be more creative. I wanted to shoot.
Sure, I’d been shooting for years, first with the Panasonic DVX100 before HD was a thing. But I wasn’t proficient yet. So I started taking the Sony EX1 home to practice at night and on weekends. It didn’t come naturally for me. But I kept at it, and gradually improved. So when Dan moved to Portland to start his own production company, I had the confidence and ability to do all the shooting myself. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours behind the lens, first with the Canon 5D, then the Canon C100, the C300, and now on my Sony FS7, which for my money is the best documentary camera value out there.
The lesson: shooting didn’t come nearly as easy to me as writing and producing. But I worked really hard. I targeted my weakness.
6. Forge unorthodox partnerships
The year was 2013. The previous three years had been the most fulfilling in my professional life. I wrapped Shattered Sky, and then shot, wrote, and edited 10 episodes of a documentary TV series called Bench to Bedside. Less than three years after learning Final Cut Pro, I was nominated for an Emmy award for editing. I was doing every aspect of filmmaking and loving it!
Meanwhile, I was directing a commercial shoot one day working with DP Doug Gritzmacher. It was intense: 20 actors, 9 scenes, a big crew. It was approaching midnight and we were about to get kicked out of our location (Frederick Memorial Hospital). I was tired and couldn’t visualize the last scene the way I’d scripted it. There was no way we were going to finish in time and I was stressed out! Fortunately, Doug changed it up on the fly, basically directed the scene for me, and saved the production! The next month, he hired me to direct some interviews for a DirecTV documentary, MLK: More than a Dream—and I got to interview Colin Powell, James Brown, and the incomparable John Lewis. Month after month, I hired him or he hired me for various projects. But along the way, he started packing—to move to Denver!
Doug’s choice was an odd one. He’d spent 15 years building a clientele in D.C. and he was leaving now? (He wanted to settle in a place where he could ski, hike, and mountain bike in his backyard, which I couldn’t blame him for!) So in part to cement an emerging partnership, we launched Z-Channel Films, a full-service video production company. We really had no idea what our business plan was, but it felt like the right thing to do. It was certainly unorthodox timing. I helped Doug pack the U-Haul the same day our website went live.
Ultimately, Doug and I were rewarded for our efforts. Z-Channel won a Telly Award for one of our first collaborations, Saving Sally(the one where he saved the shoot). Then when AARP hired me to direct a couple projects in California, I had them fly Doug out from Denver. Those two short films – Skateboard Mom and then Super Humans Unmasked—surpassed 5 million views on Facebook! And then the incredible happened. Z-Channel Films was the first production company DirecTV chose to work with to make a documentary out-of-house. On Veteran’s Day 2015, Jobs for G.I.s premiered nationally on DirecTV’s Audience Channel.
The lesson I learned: be open to new partnerships, even when it doesn’t seem that logical at first.
7. A.B.L.: Always be learning
The year was 2013 and drones were in the news. When DJI released their first Phantom copter, I was fascinated. Although I had zero experience flying, I immediately bought the first-generation model and started practicing. But the first six times I tried to fly it, I crashed. But I kept at it, and my (empty) neighborhood soccer field became my practice grounds. Gradually I got proficient. The problem was, the Phantom didn’t have a gimbal. So when I MacGyvered a GoPro on it, the footage was shaky. Try as I might, I couldn’t use the footage.
Fast forward a year. A local production company hired me to field direct and run second camera for a new Red Bull Channel series. The night before my first gig they called: “Can you fly a copter?” Sure, I bluffed, even though it’d been a year. I arrived in Key West to find the audio grip holding a brand-new Phantom 2+ still in the box. I put it all together—on the boat!—as we motored to our location. I knew the Phantom 2+ had a gimbal and a pretty good camera. But my stomach was churning: would this thing even fly? If so, would I crash it in the Atlantic? Fortunately, on that first harrowing mission, I barely avoided baptizing the copter: Here’s a YouTube clip. Red Bull liked the footage so much that in subsequent months, I flew the Phantom in Portland and Jamestown. Here’s my blog about the experience. These days, I fly the Phantom 4 all the time. It’s a great tool for cinematic aerials: check out what I did last month in in Dakar, Senegal.
The lesson: Always be learning. We may not be able to use our knowledge right away. But in this business, learning is the best calculated risk you can take!
I flew the DJI Phantom 4 in Dakar, Senegal last week. Over a mosque, through a statue, hovering near curious children. It was a great experience and really elevated the production values of my international development video. This was my first trip to Senegal, but my 20th trip overseas to make a video for an international development organization, with my company Dorst MediaWorks.
Since I just bought the Phantom 4 last month and this was my first project using it, I wanted to share nine reflections from the trip.
1. Cinematic, yes
Bottom line, aerial shots take it to the next level. I’ve filmed in a lot of places in a lot of conditions, but I got truly excited when I put the Phantom 100 meters in the sky and started filming. Brilliant moving pictures.
2. Client love
At the first review session, my client loved the aerial footage. It was all they wanted to talk about. I spent 90% of my production days earthbound, shooting interviews and following characters, but the aerials garnered all the attention!
3. Content is still king
I was in Dakar to tell the story of how a newly renovated container terminal has helped Senegal’s economy, and how a unit of the World Bank helped make it a possibility. It’s a typical project for me, since I specialize in making videos for international development organizations, like subcontractors for USAID or partners of the World Bank Group. I bought the Phantom 4 because I knew it would be hard to show the sheer scale of operations from the ground—humongous cranes, massive containers flying through the air, rows of stacked containers. The copter was the perfect tool. If, by contrast, the story had been about an education project, the most I could have expected out of the copter would have been some transition shots. But on this gig, the Phantom gave pictures that were absolutely essential to the storytelling.
Here’s the finished film for the unit of the World Bank Group, MIGA:
4. Mohamed, thanks
Unit Producer Mohamed Srour was great. A white guy in West Africa already gets a lot of attention. Throw in camera equipment and a drone, and you get very curious crowds! Flying a drone in Africa is a magnet for attention. Mohamed has been plying his craft for almost 30 years and was a joy to work with. He allowed me to focus on the creative. If you ever need a fixer in Senegal, give him a shout: 011 221 776300208
5. Safety first
It was school vacation in Senegal, so loads of children were out playing during the day. Mohamed led us to some well-known spots to fly the drone, including the Mosque de Oukama. As soon as I sent the copter up, boys immediately started gathering around. I was glued to the DJI app on my phone, busy piloting, so the first time I looked up there were 30 boys crowded around me. As the sun set, the Phantom was about 300 meters west over the Atlantic. Suddenly, the app started beeping: the battery was running out! Even though I was pressed to land the thing immediately, I had the presence of mind to ask Mohamed to clear a safe landing area — the rotating blades can be very dangerous. Almost as soon as the Phantom landed on the sand, the envelope closed and all the boys crowded in again. We took a few photos, I high-fived everybody, and we wrapped for the evening.
6. Geofencing, ugh
This version of the Phantom has geofencing built in. I guess drunk guys flying drones onto the White House grounds didn’t help. The good news is that people can’t fly copters into the paths of airplanes. The bad news is that I can’t fly the thing in Arlington, Virginia where I live — or anywhere within an approximate 20-mile radius of the White House (that’s the big red circle). I can’t even take off. What surprised me was that in Dakar, there was similar geofencing around the airport there. DJI calls it a Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which is continually updated and also includes other sensitive areas like prisons, power plants, major stadium events, etc. Good idea, but bad news if you just want to practice flying at the local park and you’re too close to a no-fly zone. Like me.
7. So Easy!
I bought the Phantom 1 when it came out in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a gimbal and the GoPro I rigged up yielded shaky, unusable footage. But on the plus side, I became a proficient pilot. So when Red Bull hired me to direct a few episodes for a TV series, I flew the Phantom 2 Vision Plus: in Portland, Oregon and the Florida Keys. Then I got hired to operate camera for a PBS documentary in Jamestown, Virginia and I also flew there. But I hadn’t flown a Phantom for about 18 months when I got this Senegal gig. Yet it is so easy to operate that I had no problems at all.
The Dakar story about the container terminal took me to a company that imports most of its product from Europe. I wanted to illustrate how a company became more profitable now that the container terminal is more efficient. “Time is money,” said the project manager in English (even though he speaks only French and Wolof!), which was exactly what I was hoping to hear. After the interview and some b-roll, I got out the Phantom (I always do it last in case people object). I figured I’d get a quick establishing shot and call it a day.
Suddenly, something special happened. The laborers went into hyper drive. With the copter overhead, I was able to see what I couldn’t see from the ground — they were all loading and unloading gas tanks in three independent dynamic assembly lines! Immediately, I lowered the copter to the far right of the scene and piloted a slow push left over a truck (see 00:12 – 00:23 in the video above). In one take, I was able to capture a beehive of activity that illustrated the project manager’s quotes perfectly. It was my favorite shot of the trip.
“Dorst MediaWorks’ goal is to help make the world a more just and equal place. We make videos for international development organizations that show how international development programs transform lives. This gives greater voice to the world’s poor and strengthens the entities that work with them.”
On Dorst MediaWorks’ portfolio of videos for international development organizations, you can skip around and see 30+ films from 15+ countries. Or you can filter by topic (education, health, small business, etc) or location (Azerbaijan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, etc). You can even click around on a world map to see where I’ve produced for clients ranging from USAID to Catholic Relief Services to the World Bank.
I like how the site is visually rich. The slideshow on the front page contains stills from my work. The pictures, films, and blogs — so many great memories of working in some challenging, interesting places with amazing people.
It’s an honor to be doing this work, amplifying the efforts of international development organizations, and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people they work with.
The sleepy town of Buea in the Southwest Province of Cameroon hosts Africa’s most grueling footrace: the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope, a marathon-length sprint 10,000 feet up a live volcano . . . and back down again. For the mainly local competitors, the race is their best shot at acheiving fame and fortune in a country short on both. But nearly half of all the runners will quit the race . . . Conquered by Mt. Cameroon.